In Militarized Mali, Humanitarian Respondents Say Aid is an Afterthought

Bankass and Bamako-Mali

Two weeks before, an armed group burned down the 41-year-old farmer’s village, destroying his granaries. The sack of rice and cooking oil he received, courtesy of the World Food Programme, will have to last and feed his entire family of nine.
The Guindos are among the latest to flee conflict in central and northern Mali, where inter-communal violence, attacks by extremist groups, and counter-terrorism operations are triggering a worsening humanitarian crisis in the West African nation.
As needs rise, aid groups say their ability to respond is being hamstrung by an increasingly militarised security landscape marked by confusion between military and humanitarian actors, shifting conflict dynamics, and funding gaps that are leaving displaced people like Guindo sick and starving.
The International NGO Safety Organisation, or INSO, recorded 216 security incidents affecting humanitarians in Mali last year. Since 2016, the organisation said 10 aid workers have been killed, 31 injured, and 19 kidnapped.
After seven years of conflict, some 3.2 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2019, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA said. More than 123,000 people are now internally displaced across the country – three times as many as January last year.
Amadou Guindo, a displaced Dogon farmer now living in a village near Bankass town.
According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, or ACLED, 2018 saw the highest civilian death toll in Mali since the eruption of conflict in 2012.
“The needs are huge,” said Hassane Hamadou, Mali country director at the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Militarised space
Since a 2013 French-led military intervention that dislodged Islamist groups from key towns in northern Mali, the country has seen a flurry of security interventions including: a UN peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA, a French counter-terrorism force called Operation Barkhane, an EU military training mission and troops from five Sahelian states known as the G5 Sahel joint force, or FC-G5S.
These international forces as well as the Malian army have been accused of stoking local conflicts, abuses against civilians, and failing to contain the violence. Islamist groups have reassembled in Mali’s desert north, expanded into the centre, and the violence has spilled over into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.
Military forces have faced repeated attacks by Islamist groups, with more peacekeepers killed in Mali than any other active mission. Last month, three Guinean peacekeepers were killed during an attack on their vehicle in Siby, close to the capital, Bamako.
In this increasingly crowded security landscape, humanitarians say attacks are creating risks for their staff in the field, who operate in close proximity to military forces. To mitigate the danger, aid programmes are frequently reduced or even suspended when military operations begin.
“If a military force moves to a community, the armed groups follow,” said Tidiane Fall, Mali country director at Action Against Hunger. “There is a conflict between the military forces and radical armed groups, who lay improvised explosive devices on the road. Sometimes we have to take the same roads.”
NGOs say the problem is compounded by poor coordination between humanitarian organisations, the UN peacekeepers, and other military actors. Dialogue between these groups is considered essential in emergency contexts to ensure military forces respect humanitarian activities and principles.
But aid groups in Mali say military operations often come as surprise, and that their demand for “humanitarian space” is regularly ignored by officials from both MINUSMA and Operation Barkhane amid an atmosphere one senior aid worker described as “confrontational” and “unproductive”.
“We tell them not to do operations because we have displaced populations and need to respond to their needs,” said the aid worker, who asked not to be named. “When we start to respond, they start doing military operations, forcing us to stop.”

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